Body Language: Who’s Really Listening?


In a recent post I mentioned how many managers report that the hiring process is a crap shoot. “Sometimes the candidates with the best credentials turn out to be the worst employees, while less qualified candidates become rock stars.” One factor is our dependence on nonverbal communication, also known as body language.

Psychology professor Albert Mehrabian came up with the 55/38/7 “formula” for communication. It breaks down like this: 55% of communication comes from body language; 38% comes from tone of voice; and, 7% comes from the actual words spoken. Mehrabian would caveat his theory by saying the ratio is greatly influenced by the context of the situation, including the social dynamics of the people communicating. The point is nonverbal communication is more important than what is actually being said. Let’s explore how context and social dynamics influence our communication style.

As I mentioned above, there is no more fascinating, intense and flawed personal encounter than the job interview. The stakes are high and the pressure is on for both sides. The employer wants to hire the right candidate and the job seeker wants to land the right job. The situation requires focus and attention to detail. So, why do we hire the wrong people? And, as candidates, why don’t we show our best selves in these high-pressure situations?

Here’s a clue: I just read a Linkedin post from recruiter Anne Rider, which included an infographic of nine nonverbal mistakes candidates make in interviews. The most intriguing “fun fact” was that 33% of hiring managers “claimed to know whether or not they would hire someone within 90 seconds.” Surprised? These numbers actually look a little conservative to me. My research indicates that we typically make a judgment about someone within the first thirty seconds of meeting him or her. We then spend the rest of our encounter looking for evidence to support our initial impression.

That means most of our hiring decisions are made based on a snap judgment, which is full of cognitive biases. Meaning: we stereotype. And, that’s obviously not a smart way to make an important hiring decision.

This emphasizes the importance of nonverbal communication because no one could possibly cover all of his or her qualifications in ninety seconds or less. That would be one heck of an elevator pitch.

How should we utilize body language to improve our communication?

Using body language to influence others is the wrong approach. Instead, think of body language as a light switch that “turns on” our best self. Positive posture and body language actually produces physiological changes in our body, allowing us to stay calm and focused. This is the key to feeling confident.

The body and mind are a complicated, yet integrated system. We tend to believe that the mind directs the body, but it’s not that simple. Remember, the brain is located inside the body; therefore, the mind relies on the body for information. It’s the body that is exposed to the stimulus of the outside world.

This is not a new concept. In the late 1800’s psychologist William James hypothesized that our emotions are influenced or even cause by our physical expressions. He was right.

In the same way an outside stimulus can trigger anxiety, defeatist thoughts and negative emotions, we can utilize body language cues to control our own physiology and redirect our nervous system to produce a sense of emotional control and positivity. This is the ideal state of mind to access our best, confident self.

Powerful people display confident body language, while powerless people exhibit constricted posture as if they want to be smaller or vanish altogether. The fetal position is not a position of power. The question is, does power enable people to exhibit confident body language or do people who exhibit positive body language become powerful.

As you might expect, the answer is both. Studies have shown that when people were given powerful sounding titles (even though the title was meaningless outside the study), they displayed more confident body language. The opposite was true of participants who were given subservient titles. Perceived hierarchical power produces feelings of dominance, which manifests in more powerful movement, gestures and body positioning. Psychologist Li Huang concluded, “…power is embodied, or grounded in bodily states. To think and act like a powerful person, people do not need to possess role power or recall being in a powerful role.”

Studies also indicate that displaying positive, powerful, confident body language and gestures actually leads to improved confidence, optimism and willingness to take on risk—key components to optimal performance.

This means we can fake it until we make it.

Do not, however, strike an overt body language pose in order to influence another person. They will most likely perceive you as aggressive, confrontational, manipulative, or just plain “off.” The key is to utilize confident body language before you enter a high-pressure situation in order to access your best self.

Using body language to trigger a better frame of mind and access your best self is the proper use of body language. In order to influence others you must first influence yourself. Expressing yourself through a genuinely confident and optimistic state of mind is authentic; therefore, there is no reason to display conflicting, incongruent behavior. Your nonverbal and verbal communications are in sync and your behavior exudes confidence.

What you say is important, but how you say it is even more important. While body language dominates communication, it should not be used as a tactic to influence others. It’s far more effective to leverage body language to influence yourself.

Before you find yourself in a high-pressure situation like a job interview, important presentation, or big sales pitch… turn on your best, authentic self with a good confident pose. Show the audience your best self right out of the gate. Make their initial impression on you a positive one. That will buy you time to confirm their favorable opinion of you.

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